Emma Berrecloth-Bale, born and raised in Oxford, has taken the route of self-publication and her novel, The Deathday Present, a work of speculative fiction, is available on Amazon in both hard-copy and e-book versions.
Let’s start with the beginning. Berrecloth-Bale achieves something quite substantial in the opening pages of this novel. She manages to capture everything idiotic about English media and mass culture, here dramatised as a royal death day. She finds, rather accurately, that the media mauls such events like children’s toys, coming up with overly dramatic and inane commentaries to satisfy a public eager for cheap thrills. As if this wasn’t cheerless enough, the crowds of onlookers are “not royalist necessarily, just smiling and happy to play their part in whatever piece of history was being created.” This intoxication of royal-allegiance, though set in the year 2182, reflects dismally on our own culture, pinpointing our need for the solidarity of crowds – our unconscious marching in step with the rhythm of the masses.
As Berrecloth-Bale goes on to express, the problem with this lies in our susceptibility to media manipulation. One poor man, Mr Patel, clutches at his one minute in the spotlight with a commentary about “Republicans” before being cut off by the news team and having his “moment of fame […] swiped away”. Individual thought and expression, as in other leaning-towards-dystopian novels, is a dangerous divergence from the system, and it can’t survive against the general wash of opinion tailored by the media.
This, and much else, can all be gleaned from the opening few staves: and to Berrecloth-Bale’s credit, it is this pervasive exposure of our unthinkingness that makes the book as enjoyable as it is provocative. Each little conceit, each fragment of Berrecloth-Bale’s insight allows the reader to spark their own questions, and draw the implications to the farthest possible conclusion: a style of presenting totalitarianism that I can’t seem to compare with anything else. Dialogue is not this lady’s skill, and neither is flowery decoration of the skeleton plot. However, she has an admirable spirit in dealing with her subject: she understands that this kind of fiction deals in “farthest possible conclusions” – think 1984’s Room 101 – but seems to have a much finer understanding of the terror that can be contrived by the reader in solitary contemplation, with only incendiary little moments of authorial input as the impetus.
To exemplify, towards the end of the novel, we are given a problem to consider:
“For the vast majority of us, however, our pain comes from very much more pedestrian quarters; life’s frustrations, state iniquities, parental slights, sibling jealousies, put-downs from those we choose as friends or spouses, sometimes even physical blows; but nothing too catastrophic or long-lived.”
The implication is that the “pedestrian quarters” that she speaks of inflect the internal space; inward contemplation, in this novel, and what we come to think in the midst of external depersonalisation, jars against this idea of “nothing catastrophic or long-lived”, since the debasement of thought is the ultimate human catastrophe. I don’t want to leap to the cliché notion of “thoughtcrime”; but yes, psychology has always held weight for the fictionalisers of total systemic control, and Berrecloth-Bale is no exception. It is to her credit that she explores it so convincingly.
Given that this year’s “Think Week” (talks, debates, panels and discussions occurred between 8th-18th February throughout Oxford) was devoted to the topic of death, this novel may yield interest for its final cutting line: “Immortality would be hers after all.” The notion of immortality, of cheating the reaper, pervades this novel time and again, constantly posing questions as to what immortality is, what it means for someone who never existed as an individual in the first place, and whether it is a desirable end. I recommend the novel especially for its mediation on this subject.